Days after the Supreme Court weighed in on digital copyright infringement issues in the MGM v. Grokster case, select consumer electronics chains began stocking a product some predict could spark the entertainment industry's next showdown over intellectual property rights.

New to the shelves of Best Buy and CompUSA this month is Slingbox, a brick-sized device that enables viewers to route the live television signal coming into their homes to a portable device anywhere on the globe via broadband connection. Slingbox costs $250 and has no subsequent subscription fee; several stores sold out on the first day.

Created by San Mateo, Calif.-based company Sling Media, Slingbox is the most prominent example of a handful of new ventures trying to repeat what TiVo achieved through time-shifting with technology capable of what loosely is referred to as place-shifting. Leading place-shifting firms even have drawn interest from cable operators interested in potential partnerships.

But a mechanism that transplants a live video feed also could potentially relocate its marketers to a federal courtroom, where they could raise questions about content transmission.

"I'll bet there will be a Supreme Court ruling sometime in the next decade specifically addressing this issue: Does the consumer have the right to place-shift as they do time-shift their content?" said Ted Shelton, chief operating officer of Orb Networks, a competitor to Sling Media that offers its own place-shifting software online free of charge.

Orb has been on the market since January, collecting 30,000 subscribers with a software-only technology that requires a TV tuner card and also can transmit other forms of media stored on a hard drive.

Place-shifting is problematic to many copyright holders because it sidesteps what is known in legalese as proximity control, which restricts the distribution of content to specific regions and times. It's a standard contractual stipulation for the Motion Picture Assn. of America, whose member studios license distribution rights to movies for distinct territories; the National Football League, which considers geographic limits the linchpin of lucrative television deals, including its Sunday Ticket pact with DirecTV; and local television stations, which pony up millions of dollars for exclusive territorial rights to all kinds of programing.

"Slingbox is one manifestation of what we assume will be a cascade of similar products that are meant to manipulate our signals in ways that we think will be harmful to the network-affiliate business, if not the law," CBS executive vp Martin Franks said.

Putting aside the piracy risks, place-shifting critics offer plenty of scenarios that put the technology in murky legal territory.

Two Slingbox subscribers could send each other programing unavailable in their respective areas; an East Coast viewer could stream "Survivor" to the West Coast three hours early. The West Coast viewer could return the favor by providing access to a premium channel the East Coast viewer doesn't pay to receive.

Sling Media CEO Blake Krikorian knows full well the implications of his product. Mindful of the backlash that derailed Napster, he and rival executives have been busy reaching out to various sectors of the entertainment world in hopes of educating and collaborating. He envisions a host of new revenue opportunities for content owners but realizes Slingbox requires an industrywide paradigm shift. (Continued Here)


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